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a heart-shaped reef
In the same hour that the Emerald Jane was approaching Scilly Island in the South Pacific, my sister-in-law was alone in her New York home. A sharp crash made her jump: A watercolor of a racing sailboat had fallen from her wall to the hardwood floor. A wedding present from John and me, it had hung in the same spot for twenty-one years. Joanne, a little shaken, started calling around the family to find where we might be—she knew we were somewhere far at sea.
Below deck in our catamaran sailboat, my husband, John, stood in the doorway of our tiny stateroom. I can picture him there in that instant before everything changed. Our four children—we had pried them away from their suburban world for a thousand reasons—were busy elsewhere on the boat, settling in for the night. John had just told me how long it would probably take us to get to Fiji, our next destination by way of Tonga; some problems with the boom of the mainsail were slowing us down, but we could fix it in the morning. After Fiji, we would head for Australia. From there, the kids and I were planning to head home to the States, and John would stay long enough to clean up Emerald Jane and sell her—which can take months, and I worried about that. I guess I was worried about what might become of our marriage after this long adventure. I was also worried about the whole idea of selling a ship that had become like one of the family; I thought it would be particularly hard on John, who loved her the most.
We had done what we set out to do two years earlier when we first set sail. Along the way, our children’s eyes had opened to the beauty of the world. The kids were very strong characters now, very different from when we began. We loved them in new ways—maybe deeper ways, because we had taken the time to finally get to know them.
John said he had just finished a sweet conversation under the stars with Amelia, our fourteen-year-old daughter, during her turn at the wheel. She had followed him back inside and, by tossing the life vest to her sixteen-year-old brother, Ben, turned the “watch” over to him. He had been watching the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous on a laptop. Movies on DVD were a vestige of our once and future life, and Ben needed a dose of that now and then, as did we all. The boat was on automatic pilot as Ben prepared to go aft for his two-hour watch.
Everybody was finally happy to be together—it had taken a few thousand miles, but the family now seemed in synch and content. I don’t mean that it was perfect, but we had learned to live together in a tight space without too much drama.
We had about a minute left.
With our autopilot engaged, the boat was sailing itself in this moment. We thought.
I was propped up in bed with a laptop as John chatted from the doorway. He looked good. He is a handsome, green-eyed guy full of fun and energy. People sometimes say he looks like Dennis Quaid. Maybe so. He does have strong features and he’s certainly handsome. He has serious eyes that always give away what he’s thinking. He has, or rather had, a dark mustache. Amelia and I talked him into throwing it overboard during the long sail across the Pacific. He’s even better-looking with-out it.
He hadn’t had a drink since his big meltdown in the Caribbean, and I was pretty much in love with him again.
So you can picture the crew: Amelia looks a little older than her fourteen years. She has long, dark strawberry blond hair, and big, empathetic brown eyes. She is very fit, with a great, honest smile and the hint of dimples. She is very pretty and has a natural charisma that has always filled the space around her. She is eminently sensible, a peacemaker, Daddy’s girl. Ben, her older brother by a year and a half, is the surfer archetype: very blond hair, dazzling blue eyes, great smile when it breaks through the gloom of family unfairness, tallish to the point where he sometimes stoops a bit to fit into a crowd. Despite his rock shirts and his surfer looks, you would say he appears quite respectable: a top achiever in Scouts, perhaps, which is exactly right. Little green-eyed Camille, five, has long golden hair, pink cheeks, and a huge smile, which is nearly always beaming. Jack, her freckled nine-year-old brother, seems to have stepped out of an old Our Gang film: the neighborhood tough guy. His mouth is always a little open in wonder. His blond hair and hazel eyes are usually seen only in the blur of his constant explorations. My own hair is long and blond and my eyes are brown, like Amelia’s. I do apologize for the fact that we might seem like Southern California stereotypes. Guilty, I suppose.
It was just after dark in a lonely reach of the South Pacific. As we sped westward, the ocean floor was a mile below us—or it was supposed to be.
Then at that moment everything changed.
Like when microphone feedback suddenly fills an auditorium until you must cover your ears, a deafening shrill exploded through the boat. It seemed to come from everywhere. A big jostle. Horrible, gouging, scraping chalkboardlike sounds. The twin hulls under us were screaming. John looked at me the way someone in the next seat of an airplane might look if, at forty thousand feet, all the engines just quit. I had never seen him so instantly confused and horrified—then came the great shaking and crash as we bounced more violently between the iron-hard treetops of submerged coral, sharp as butcher knives. Seconds later we slammed full-on into the coral reef. Our home, the Emerald Jane, came to a ripping halt, and the great waves of the Pacific exploded around us in a deafening, continuous roar. John caught himself against the doorway. “My God!” he shouted, his eyes drilling crazily into mine. Everything about our lives had just changed and we knew it. Our lives, our children’s lives, could end in the dark of the sea in what? A minute from now? Less?
“Reef!” Ben screamed from the deck.
“It cannot be coral! We’re miles . . .” John yelled to himself and me as he bounded up the small stairway—I was right behind him.
“Dad! Dad! What’s happening?” Amelia shouted over the roaring surf and the loud tearing of the boat against the coral. She tried to cut him off in the salon. The Drop Dead laptop was dead on the floor; things had fallen everywhere. Our two younger kids, Jack and Camille, were on the salon’s big wraparound sofa under the front windows, petrified and gritting their teeth, their eyes incredibly wide and their hands hovering in front of them with their little fingers outstretched, shaking.
“It’s a reef, guys. We’re on a reef. We’ll be fine,” John said without stopping, pushing Amelia aside and running aft through the open glass door of the salon and leaping up the step to the teak deck of the cock-pit. His eyes were terrified and the kids saw that. They had never seen him like this before—though they had seen a lot. Then I came through behind him, grabbed flashlights, and they saw my eyes. I didn’t believe John’s quick analysis that we’d be fine. The kids took no comfort in it either. His eyes, truer than his lips, were saying, we are in very serious trouble.
He had been so careful to navigate us far around the coral atoll islands in this stretch of sea. Back in Tahiti, he had replaced the autopilot’s computer to make sure we had the very best.
As we looked over the edge of the deck into the dark sea—the moon had not yet risen—our flashlights revealed millions of hard, red fingers of coral tearing at our boat through the boiling surf. Our lights would not last for long, and John would soon be asking Ben to take a knife and do the unthinkable. So much would happen this night in the dark.
John threw the engine hard into reverse just as a high wave crested violently over the stern and over him with a loud crash. The double hulls smashed again with a horrible sound into the coral. He leapt through the flash flood on deck to reach the controls of the other engine. He hit the start button and pushed it hard into reverse. Both engines could not even begin to pull the boat off the reef.
Only the front, smaller jib sail, called the genoa and nicknamed the genny, had been in use. It absolutely had to be hauled down this instant if the engines were to have any chance. John pulled the genny’s thick Dacron line off one of the two stainless-steel, hourglass-shaped winches behind the wheels. The wind should have instantly spilled from the sail, but, in the windy whip and tangle of the moment, the line had jammed in a pulley somewhere forward. Ben, enough of a sailor now to understand that the sail had to be cut, snapped the handle of a diving knife into his father’s hand.
John zigzagged forward along the lurching deck. Crouching near the bow, he cut the line. As the genny snapped free to flap in the wind, the large metal reinforced tip of the sail—where the lines tie on—whistled toward his face. He leapt backward as it just missed his eyes; he had seen the glint of it coming thanks to flashlights Ben and Amelia were now shining forward from the aft deck.
The surf roared like a tumble of jet engines all around us. We were screaming to each other just to be heard.
I ran into the salon to help get the kids ready for our escape. Little Jack and Camille were still frozen in fear on the wraparound sofa—just sitting there hugging each other and shaking horribly. There were loud popping and cracking sounds. Looking down the stairs into the port hull, I was suddenly watching a disaster movie; it couldn’t be real: Water was filling the starboard hull as if a dam had burst. The view down the little stair-way was of water rushing floor to ceiling from Amelia’s room toward Ben’s. Her tennis shoes and bedclothes and books were swirling in the flood. Then the retreat of the sea pulled the water back toward Amelia’s room, drawing Ben’s things into the swirl, then back again. With each surge, the water was lapping higher up the steps toward the salon where we stood frozen, watching, maybe screaming. It couldn’t be real. The boat was being devoured now with each great wave.
Amelia and I grabbed canvas shopping totes and started collecting some of the flotsam that might be useful in the life raft, especially bottles of water and packages of food. Our hands were shaking so violently that it was hard to pick things up and put them in the bags—and I was slipping terribly on the wood floor. Jack said something but I could not make it out. “What, Jack?” I screamed over the din of crashing surf and cracking boat.
“I don’t want to die,” he screamed back.
“Me either!” little Camille screamed.
“We don’t want to die!” they screamed together.
Amelia was handling this better then I was; she put her arms around both of them.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we have two other boats, remember? This is what they are for—just this kind of thing. It happens all the time.” They calmed down and sat back to watch this disaster movie. But they were shaking like we were.
I stepped outside to see how John and Ben were doing. They would have to get the emergency life raft going somehow. The other boat, the dinghy, wouldn’t last long swinging there on the stern in this surf.
The coral’s digestion of the boat had now become a steady fusillade of earsplitting cracks and pops as the hulls and bulkheads—remarkably strong carbon-fiber laminates—cracked apart. Our belongings began to wash around us. Even above this sound, a new, deep roar behind the boat made all the flashlight beams shine aft to reveal a cresting wave building high above us. Down it came, ripping the dinghy and its stainless-steel davits from the deck. The stern of Emerald Jane rose up and crashed on top of the loosened dinghy.
Even without the genny pulling the boat farther into the coral, our engines were useless against the power of the waves and the tightening grip of the coral.
“The radio!” John screamed as he passed by me in the cockpit. He headed through the open glass doors into the salon, where he stood for a second in shock to see the interior awash. He turned to Ben and pointed to the GPS position readout at the chart table. Somewhere in that instant, Ben found a pencil and scrap of paper to write down our position. John and I went the few steps down into the port hull, sloshing but not too deep yet, where the SSB radio was still getting power. John dialed in the emergency frequency and put the microphone close to his mouth to be heard over the roar of our destruction. We were standing in water and operating electrical equipment; I prayed that everything was grounded properly.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is sailing vessel Emerald Jane. We have struck a reef in position”—Ben reached down the stairs to hand him the scrap of paper—“approximately 16 degrees, 35 minutes south . . . We are sinking and in need of immediate assistance. Mayday. Mayday . . .”
Ben, seeing the fear in the eyes of the little ones, joined Amelia in offering some comfort. He scooped his little brother up and held him close as he turned on the less useful VHF radio in the salon and tried for an acknowledgment from a passing airliner or another ship. Nothing. Our lights began to flicker.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Black Wave by John and Jean Silverwood. Copyright © 2008 by John Silverwood. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.